Even though the academic and social scenes at Princeton have been overly researched and dissected by writers before, I believe that these topics should continue to be discussed in the context of students’ mental health. Many Princeton students are suffering from depression and choose to leave Princeton for one or two years. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s a “silent epidemic.” No one ever discusses it. There might be a simple question as to where a certain person is, and then someone will respond saying that he or she has taken a leave of absence. Then shortly after, the topic changes. But why has that person left? Sure, some people leave for business pursuits and illness, but what about those who have suffered hardships at Princeton because of factors directly related to the environment here? Despite the fact that this percentage of students is not large, the administration should investigate why these students leave once or multiple times.
The most well-known aspects that make Princeton a competitive and stressful place are grade deflation and the social scene. We all operate in a hyper-competitive environment that pressures us to succeed both academically and socially. From the moment we cross our fingers and hope that our grades on exams beat the curve to the moment we discuss our summer plans with our colleagues, we want to prove to ourselves and to everyone around us that we are on top of our game. But what happens when that internship doesn’t come through or when your grades are below average?
When you’re surrounded by the best and brightest students from around the globe, there is an intense need to prove that you can keep up with them and not get lost in the crowd. Whenever I’ve discussed issues with depressed students who have taken a leave of absence, one of the many reasons for their leave is their inability to succeed despite intense effort. It is especially difficult to continue to try one’s hardest in class, for example, when effort doesn’t equal desired yield, and the classmate next to you — who may not have done anything all semester — gets the highest grade. Not to mention, grade deflation exacerbates this cold reality. When you also think about how your effort may go unnoticed when you apply for internships, this lack of recognition can trigger a multitude of insecurities. Princeton students are interning in exotic places, shaking hands with some of the most influential people of our time and researching complex things. For students from less competitive universities, sometimes a summer is just that: a summer. Sure, someone might be studying abroad. But I’ve rarely heard anyone at Princeton saying that they were, for example, working at a boardwalk all summer or just relaxing. There is a feature of our environment to constantly be working in places and organizations that will gain respect from our peers, such as a hedge fund or a cutting-edge laboratory.
The social components of Princeton can also contribute to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, which are key symptoms of depression. The eating clubs are definitely a great way to meet people and socialize, but things do not always pan out. You get hosed, or you may get into the eating club of your choice but your friends don’t. Then, you begin to wonder if the friendships that you formed during your underclassman years will weaken.
Sometimes it’s easy to judge an individual who has taken a leave of absence as someone who just could not handle the Princeton atmosphere. But these individuals should encourage us all to dig deeper as to why they have decided to leave in the first place. With all the opportunities that are presented to us daily, it is easy to think that there is nothing to be unhappy about at the University. However, there may be people who harbor emotions that are the exact opposite of what is expected, and instead of openly discussing this, they become mentally ill and leave campus in order to seek refuge elsewhere since their problems are not necessarily welcome here. Even though this type of student is not in the majority at Princeton, their problems should not be ignored but investigated in order to reach a greater understanding of both the supporting and opposing sentiments of those who study at this University.
Morgan Jerkins is a comparative literature major from Williamstown, N. J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.